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Bang goes the theory

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25 November 2019

Author: The Guardian

Image: The Trend Forecaster's Handbook by Martin Raymond

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Floating cities, wooden bikes, smart glasses: how did futurologists fare in their predictions for the decade? Richard Godwin finds out.

The 2010s has been an eventful decade for online influencers, craft brewers and vape shop owners – and a disappointing one for retail assistants, journalists and black-cab drivers. At the beginning of the decade, everyone hated the bankers and exulted the tech barons; as it draws to its close, everyone hates the tech barons and ignores the bankers. But amid all the uncertainty, one ancient profession has flourished: the fortune-teller.

Naturally, modern fortune-tellers don’t call themselves fortune-tellers; they prefer “trend forecaster” or “futurologist” or (sorry) “lifestyle detective”. They usually do without the animal entrails and star charts, preferring to read the runes from makeup trends in Seoul, tech start-ups in Palo Alto and genetic experiments in Shenzhen. And they have made themselves as indispensable to 21st-century product designers and brand managers as astrologers once were to kings. As Martin Raymond noted in his Trend Forecaster’s Handbook of 2010, forecasting “now underpins all aspects of society where it is important to understand the short-, medium- and long-term impact of new and emerging changes in the culture around us”.

Raymond is the cofounder of the Future Laboratory, a consultancy based in London. His 60 or so co-workers write reports, host seminars and curate networks that are used by companies such as Google, L’Oréal, Sainsbury’s, Jaguar Land Rover and Ikea. He now looks back on the beginning of the decade – when the impact of the global financial crisis was beginning to be felt – as something of a golden age for forecasters. “If you remember the period around the year 2010, it was very uncertain,” he says. “We probably had our most successful period in our 20-year timeframe then: a lot of trends we are still measuring today emerged in that period.”

Raymond’s book, recently updated for a 2020 edition, applied a methodology to what might seem a numinous art. Forecasters tend to identify a “macrotrend” – such as “new sobriety”, the mood of no-frills seriousness that emerged after the crash – then trace it from the innovators and early adopters through to the late adopters and refuseniks. They can then advise clients how the trend might affect their customers, and how best to respond to that.

'One of the macrotrends identified by The Future Laboratory at the outset of the decade was “Bleisure”, ie, the blending of business and leisure.'

One of the macrotrends identified by The Future Laboratory at the outset of the decade was “Bleisure”, ie, the blending of business and leisure. (The 2010s were, if nothing else, a decade of gross portmanteau words.) “We saw more freelancers, more start-ups, more businesses promoting flexible working, at the same time as more people were being laid off and having to fend for themselves,” Raymond says. “We saw the business sector responding to that, but also the hospitality sector, technology companies, fashion brands. It’s not forecasting exactly – it’s just noticing.”

Still, many of the specific examples cited as technologies of the future in the 2010 book haven’t weathered so well. I still have no idea how to use a QR code, or why I might want to. There is a design for a “lilypad floating city”, a luxurious, eco-friendly floating island designed by the Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut as the sort of place where climate refugees might live in the event of catastrophe. The actual experience of refugees in the 2010s makes it seem horribly poignant.

Technology, as the saying goes, is stuff that doesn’t work yet. But some examples of future tech were so nearly right. The “Muve Gruve inactivity monitor”, a piece of wearable weight-loss technology that clips on to your belt, feeds data back into your phone, and prompts you to exercise via a series of buzzes and bleeps. The company that made it has long since disappeared – but the Fitbit did catch on. Raymond even stands by the Okes recycled oak bicycle that he suggested would be “perfectly on-trend” for city hipsters. “There was a huge growth in cycling at the time,” he explains. “It was part of the move towards small designers, artisanal products and counterintuitive materials. And bamboo bikes are quite a big deal in China, you know.”

The full article originally appeared in a print issue of The Guardian.

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